One of the most bitter literary feuds of recent decades has ended. Salman Rushdie, it seems, has finally forgiven John le Carré for failing to support him as many other writers did when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author of The Satanic Verses on 14 February 1989. At the time of the fatwa, le Carré said that one “made light of the Book at your peril . . . A peculiar justi - fication used by Rushdie’s most vociferous defenders is that his novel has great literary merit – some insist it is a masterpiece . . . Are we to believe that those who write literature have a greater right to free speech than those who write pulp?” In 1997, in an exchange of letters published in a newspaper, Rushdie called le Carré “an illiterate, pompous ass”; le Carré ridiculed Rushdie as a “self-canonising, arrogant colonialist”.
The origins of the feud are thought to stretch back to a mocking review Rushdie wrote of le Carré’s The Russia House (1989). Le Carré, wrote Rushdie, “wants his work to transcend the genre and be treated as Serious Literature . . . [But] much of the trouble is, I’m afraid, literary.” Le Carré has long resented how his novels have been dismissed by high-minded literary critics as mere genre fiction, not literature.
Yet, with the passing decades, his reputation has continued to grow. As long ago as the late 1980s, the great American novelist Philip Roth acclaimed A Perfect Spy (1986) as “the best British novel published since the war”. And now Rush - die, speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, which it is. “I wish we hadn’t done it,” he said of his feud with le Carré, who, in turn, responded by telling the Times that he regretted what had happened between the two authors and admired “Salman for his work and his courage”. He added: “And if I met Salman tomorrow? I would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer.”
Time is indeed the great healer.